Stop Using the “I” Word: People are not illegal

People may be short, tall, thin, heavy, broad, blonde, brunette, lazy, self-conscious, hard working, narrow minded. . . but they cannot be illegal. It is not illegal to exist. A person can do something illegal, but that does not make them illegal. Calling someone illegal is at best an outward sign of disrespect, and at worst, a sign of sheer ignorance.

We do not need to rob anyone of their human dignity. Those who do, are doing so only because they have none and they think that taking some away from someone else will bestow upon themselves the characteristics they so jealously covet.

The problem is the press often uses this label when talking about people who have entered the United States without passing inspection at a border or immigration checkpoint. This is called Entering Without Inspection or EWI. While this is a federal misdemeanor, it does not place upon that person a demeaning lable, nor does it mean that someone who has done this is going to be untrustworthy at everything else they do. That logic is tragically unintelligent. If it were so, then the entire human race is guilty of crimes and therefore none of us is trustworthy and all of us should spend the rest of our lives in some kind of prison or probation program. Obviously that is a silly proposition.

If you hear or read someone using the term illegal when talking about a person or group of people, you should send them a note and let them know that nobody is illegal, actions are illegal, people are not. Request they refrain from this type of label or you will not


  1. DollyCinders says:

    I agree that a specific individual should not be described as “illegal” until his/her status is proven. But the term is often used to refer to a group of people known to exist in the USA (or whichever destination country is being discussed), and the appropriateness of the label for them is debatable.
    Saying “no human being is illegal” is a misleading slogan. I believe that few or no participants in the recent immigration debate ever seriously believed that people can be inherently illegal. I doubt that adults considering immigration issues believe the term “illegal immigrant” means that. The term is understood to have a different meaning.
    Instead, some people claim that a person’s presence in a particular place, or crossing a particular boundary, at a particular time can be the result of some kind of violation. Other people believe that such a presence is itself some kind of violation. I believe these are the two widely intended meanings of “illegal immigrant”. Unfortunately, it’s not always clear which of those two is meant, but both involve illegality so maybe that doesn’t matter.
    It’s true that we don’t describe people in other kinds of situations as illegal. For example, we don’t use “illegal drivers” to refer to those who get speeding tickets, or “illegal employers” to refer to those who knowingly hire employees who lack a legal right to work. But the English language has other quirky terminology that we don’t worry about, because we know the intended meaning. We know the approximate intended meaning of this term. Must this term have a legalistic degree of precision? Do we really need to get rid of it?
    It’s true that “illegal immigrant” is not thoroughly accurate terminology. But why is “undocumented” any better? For some of the migrants we are talking about, there do exist various documents related to their citizenship or residency.
    For both those with papers and those without, the real issue is this: some people care about violations (of laws or other government rules) that enabled the migrants we’re talking about to reside in the country. And those people often believe that a migrant’s right to stay should not be affected by facts about who (migrants, parents, human traffickers, etc) committed the violations. And those people often aren’t concerned about whether Obama’s executive order will give “deferred action status” or whether possible future events might result in citizenship or legal residency.
    Some people claim that the term “illegal” is “demeaning” or “pejorative” but that is far from proven. And even if it became proven, we could ask: why do the people we’re talking about deserve to be spared from that kind of term, given those violations I just mentioned?
    Activists are demanding that people stop referring to the migrants we are talking about as “illegal”. Then they should suggest something much more accurate, something that captures the fact that those violations occurred (because the violations are what people care about and are the defining characteristic of the migrants we are talking about). Why should people settle for a misleading term like “undocumented” just to avoid the alleged possibility of stigmatization?
    How about using “unlawfully present” in place of “illegal”?

    • “Some people claim that the term “illegal” is “demeaning” or “pejorative” but that is far from proven.”

      There is a very easy test for this: how would you feel if people referred to you as “illegal?”

      I understand that for some people, the argument for disavowing this term is murky, but I’m sure you will agree, if you get called “illegal” often enough, you will believe it yourself, especially if you could be arrested for no other reason than for being here. Hard not to feel illegal if you could be arrested for just driving down the street and not breaking any traffic laws.

      I never let my son feel like he was inferior to anyone else. His ADD made it difficult for him to fit in, but that did not mean he was a bad person, although you would never know it to speak with him in his earlier, pre-diagnosis years. He believed himself to be “bad” because that was how he was treated, and that’s what he heard from many of the other kids.

      Terminology is very important. If it were not so, we would still be calling my ancestors “Micks.” We would still be using all the other names we used to think were okay to use, but have now been exponged from our vocabulary. Illegal Alien is the “spic” of the 21st century.

      It may not be obvious to some right now, but it will be crystal clear in the years to come.


  1. […] like all the other segments of our society, if an illegal immigrant has a job now they are fortunate. If they don’t, the chances are slim they will get one any time […]

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